Dr. Nancy Davidson, former VP Joe Biden and other cancer leaders share insights about disease that touches so many

University of Pennsylvania panel aptly dubbed ‘A Formidable Foe: Cancer in the 21st Century’
Fred Hutch’s Dr. Nancy Davidson, former Vice President Joe Biden, patient Kim Vernick, Penn President Amy Gutmann and Penn’s Dr. Carl June. Photo by Eddie Marenco

On Feb. 28, Dr. Nancy Davidson, senior vice president and director of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, participated in a panel discussion about cancer with former Vice President Joe Biden, among others, at the University of Pennsylvania. Biden will soon lead the university’s Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.

Biden’s son Beau, a Penn alumnus, lost his life to cancer in 2015. Last year, Biden kicked off the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative, which included a Moonshot “listening tour” at Fred Hutch, in an effort aimed at accelerating progress in cancer research and treatment.

Penn President Amy Gutmann hosted the David and Lyn Siffen University Forum, entitled "A Formidable Foe: Cancer in the 21st Century, which drew more than 1,000 members of the Penn community.

Other panelists were Dr. Carl June, director of the Translational Research Program at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center and a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine; Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society; and Kim Vernick, a Penn Medicine patient and pancreatic cancer survivor.

"It was a thrill for me to return to Penn, where I served as a medical intern, to participate in this unique forum showcasing the successes and challenges in the field of cancer," said Davidson, who is also president of the American Association for Cancer Research. "I am grateful to President Gutmann for her willingness to convene a diverse group of panelists to shine a light on the complexities of cancer."

According to panel host Gutmann, the ACS estimates that 1.7 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer this year, and 40 percent can expect to be diagnosed within their lifetime. “The prognosis today, compared to any other time in human history, is good. But for this team, delivering a good prognosis is not enough.”

At the forum Biden asked the audience members who had been personally touched by cancer to raise their hands, prompting “a sea of arms” to raise up. “You all know full well if someone you love is diagnosed, you try to learn as much as you can as quick as you can about the prognosis and about the particular cancer you’re dealing with,” he said.

He added that the need for collaboration — among research universities, medical centers, the private sector, and government — was a driving force in building the Moonshot.

Panelist June, of Penn, talked about the promise of immunotherapy, which uses the patient’s own immune system — aided by a bit of genetic reprogramming — to target cancer cells, while panelist Brawley, of ACS, emphasized the need for cancer prevention.

“If we applied everything that we currently know, we could prevent at least 25 percent of all cancer deaths that are occurring now,” he said, suggesting that close to 150,000 of the nearly 600,000 deaths from cancer last year could have been prevented.

It’s a sentiment shared by Fred Hutch clinical oncologist Davidson. “I’m a treater by training, [but] we’re not going to treat ourselves out of the cancer problem,” she said. “Treatment alone is not going to be the best possible solution. I really hope we’re able to take our drive and motivation and scientific curiosity and bring it back into the prevention space.”

— Adapted from a Penn article by Katherine Unger Baillie and Michele Berger

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